Chow, D. L., Miller, S. D., Seidel, J. A., Kane, R. T., Thornton, J. A., & Andrews, W. P. (2015). The role of deliberate practice in the development of highly effective psychotherapists. Psychotherapy, 52(3), 337.
In 2014, Tracey and colleagues caused a stir when they claimed that there was no evidence of expertise in psychotherapy (see my July, 2014 blog). They defined expertise as increased quality of performance that is gained with additional experience – and they concluded that psychotherapy research has not provided evidence that therapist performance improves with experience. The issue is important because differences between therapists account for over 5% of patient outcomes. This seems small, but it is larger than variance in outcomes accounted for by the use of empirically supported treatments (0% - 4%), and almost as large as the variance accounted for by client-rated alliance (5% - 15%). Across a wide variety of professions (e.g., music, medicine, chess, sports), professionals’ engagement in deliberate practice results in improvement and superior performance. However, there is little evidence of this in psychotherapy. In this article by Chow and colleagues, the authors look specifically at “deliberate practice” defined as individualized training activities to improve one’s performance through repetition and refinement. To be effective, deliberate practice has to be focused on achieving specific targets and guided by conscious monitoring of outcomes over a long period of time. The authors collected a sample of 69 therapists who worked across a number of organizations and practice areas, and these therapists provided data related to 4,850 patients. Seventeen of the 69 therapists who treated 1,632 clients also provided data on professional development activities. Therapists were multidisciplinary (i.e., counsellors, psychologists, marital therapists, social workers, psychotherapists) with an average of over 8 years of experience, who worked mainly in private practice or within the national health service in the U.K., and who primarily treated adult patients with depression or anxiety disorders. Patient outcomes were measured repeatedly with a valid standardized scale, and deliberate practice was self reported by therapists using a measure that asked about the frequency and time therapists engaged in 25 activities outside of work aimed at improving therapeutic skills. On average, clients improved by the end of treatment and the effect was large (d = 1.22). As expected therapists differed in their patient outcomes (i.e., some therapists were reliably more effective than others). Therapist demographic variables, theoretical orientation, years of experience, and practice setting were not related to patient outcomes. However, the amount of time in deliberate practice activities was associated with a reduction in client distress. Compared to the less effective therapists (2.62 hrs/wk in deliberate practice), the best performing therapists (7.39 hrs/wk in deliberate practice) spent about 2.81 times more time on deliberate practice. Therapists rated the following deliberate practice activities as the most relevant to their patients’ outcomes: reviewing challenging cases, attending training workshops, reflecting on past sessions, and reflecting on what to do in future sessions.
Although this is a single study with a relatively small sample of therapists, it is one of those rare studies to assess the effects of therapist deliberate practice on patient outcomes. As is the case with other professions, reviewing one’s performance can play an important role in identifying errors, altering course, and remediating problems. As Tracey and colleagues indicated, therapists need good quality information in order to learn from their errors and make adjustments so that clients can improve. Quality information might be available from progress monitoring (i.e., continuous feedback to therapists about client outcomes), which has been shown to improve client outcomes especially for at-risk cases. Chow and colleagues go further to suggest targeted learning by using standardized clients within training and supervision contexts. Deliberate practice is not only for newer or less experienced therapists, since experienced therapists also vary in their ability to engage and help clients. Highly effective therapists spend more time engaging in activities outside of their practice specifically aimed at improving their performance.